Eighteen years earlier, Summer 1969
Sue Ann McMillan Blackburn was picking blueberries when the unearthly moan tore through the rainforest.
Startled, she crushed a handful of berries against her buffalo-plaid shirt and spun around toward the road. Fifty yards west through the woods, her two-year-old daughter, Serena, lay sleeping in the battered orange Chevrolet. The doors were locked, a window open an inch; Serena was safe, she reminded herself. In relief, she dragged in a lungful of musky air.
A quarter-mile to her left, the hiss of Montana Creek rose and fell. The water boiled around lichen-covered logs and boulders, rushing and receding, muffling the cawing of ravens as they tore at the remains of spawned-out salmon.
Overhead, a bird whistled. Then a second moan hushed everything, and Sue Ann’s heart hammered.
Alaska had only been a state for ten years, and she was as new to its wildness as they come. She was a green cheechako, a twenty-two-year-old newcomer to Alaska; in this moment, she felt her innocence of the wilderness, her fear of it, just as acutely as she’d felt her vulnerability in Los Angeles a few months ago. In that steel and concrete jungle her husband Bill had been murdered, and the brutal death had cracked her self-confidence. She noted how quick she was to tremble now.
Meaugh! The feral wail came again.
Banging noises, like stones thrown against a submerged tin can, warbled out of the woods near the creek. Dog? Hunter? Bear?
Bending to grasp the berry bucket, her only weapon, Sue Ann bolted.
She skirted a stand of spined devil’s club, bounded over mountain fern and ducked under the bows of a spruce. The bucket swung wildly. Zigzagging left and right, she barreled down an incline, trying to keep her line toward the car reasonably straight. Dear God, she prayed, dear God.
Heart plunging like a piston, she charged into a small clearing.
A brown blur and a flash of silver tumbled into the meadow.
Sue Ann plowed to a halt, half in shock, half in wonder. A bear cub the size of a Saint Bernard dog heaved upright and slashed at a square lard container wedged over his head. It looked as if his coffee-brown coat had been bleached in an area the size of a basketball, high on his left hip.
Suddenly the Alaskan brown grizzly dropped to all fours and rammed hard into a boulder. The twang of metal striking stone reverberated.
Still hyped with adrenaline, Sue Ann moved jerkily around the edge of the clearing, positioning herself between the cub’s back and the gravel road, somewhere uphill.
She glanced into the shadows of the woods. The ferocity of mother bears was legendary. Thinking of the limited bear lore she knew, the horror stories of human maulings, blindness, terrible scars, and death, she shuddered.
The cub wailed, and Sue Ann faced him.
Groaning and growling, he clawed at the can. He tumbled to his back and scratched at the metal. His fur leaped with labored breathing.
Sue Ann felt helpless. The yearling cub would starve, or drown in the creek if he attempted to drink.
But she couldn’t risk involvement. Her husband was dead, and that meant Serena would face life alone, like this cub, if something happened to her mother.
At the animal’s next flurry of movement, Sue Ann dropped the berry bucket and took off uphill.
In seconds, brush snapped behind her. Some instinct in the bear had urged him to follow, although the tinny whacking of the can against trees and rocks told her his progress was difficult.
There was a period of silence during which Sue Ann broke out onto the road. Her breathing rasped and her hands shook as she dug into her jeans pocket for the keys. Spotting the faded orange paint job, she sprinted for it.
Serena lay sleeping in the back seat, her rosebud lips relaxed, her cheeks pink, and her small hands open on either side of her face. Black curls, so stark a contrast to Sue Ann’s chaff-gold hair, lay like lace against her forehead. Her stained gray teddy bear lay on the floorboards.
Sue Ann’s legs buckled in relief, and she gripped the car roof. Seconds passed. Her breathing slowed. Rubbing her damp face against a sleeve, she glanced toward the woods.
A sadness filled her. Babies were babies, whether animal or human. They were the reason for struggle in all of life. That cub would probably be wasted, and it was a shame, but Serena’s security had to come first.
Back in town ten miles there might be help. Her eighteen-year-old brother Eric might be pried from his part-time job at the survey company, and with a gang of his friends—
But no, in two hours the cub would have wandered off into the forest.
The bear charged out of the woods fifty feet beyond the car. He galloped up the roadbed, hesitated, bawled, and charged back down again. The youngster ran straight into the trunk of a fir tree. He teetered, staggered, fell down. Was he out cold? Had he suffocated? Sue Ann waited for five minutes, but he stayed down.
She glanced at Serena, at the inert cub, at her blueberry-stained hands, and once more at the still brown body of the bear.
Her decision made, she straightened up.
After retrieving her black cord jacket from the front seat, she shrugged into it, zipped the front, and took the tire iron with her. In seconds she was standing over the cub.
Thick rough fur glistened in the sunlight. Twigs and moss littered his back and legs. A right front paw lay beneath his chest, the other three legs stretched out from his body; one of the five toe pads on the left front paw was scored and bleeding. Sue Ann felt sympathy, but quelled it by noting the gleam of his claws.
She set the tire iron on the fir needles; it was handy as a weapon, but useless for pulling the can off the bear.
Then, taking a deep breath, she bent in front of the animal and forced her fingers inside the container, above and below his head. Tensing, she split her lips in a grimace and gave a mighty backward lunge.
The tin stayed in place but the cub came-to with a snarl. He jerked away, wedging Sue Ann’s fingers tight inside the can. Please, no…. Her lungs seized in panic. Her heart thundered. Forcing mossy air into her lunges, she twisted and yanked to get free. The bear cuffed at her arms. Three, four passes, and he’d slashed the corduroy without reaching her flesh. Please.
A rock caught the heel of her boot and she fell, her face ramming into the bear’s withers. He smelled like moldy mushrooms. He grasped her shoulders, and it felt as if the State of Alaska had wrapped its mighty arms around her in a death-hug. Iron locks of fear closed over her throat, squeezing her breath to ragged cries. They wrestled like gladiators, the cub bawling and slashing, Sue Ann trying to yank away.
Bill felt this way, she thought during the struggle. Incredulous, because death could come so ruthlessly. A whim, poor timing, a mistake in judgment—any of these could still breathing forever. Sue Ann understood how helpless her husband must have felt, how isolated. Dear God, for Serena’s sake, she prayed.
Suddenly the bear’s claws sliced like streaks of acid into her right forearm, and she screamed. Entangled in the fabric and flesh, enraged, he bellowed and swiveled, sinking his talons to the bone. His jaws snapped inside the can, sending terror deeper into Sue Ann’s mind. Yet, with the razors of fire ripping her flesh, Sue Ann reacted instinctively to protect herself: she buried her face in the fur of his shoulder.
They fell against the fir tree, the container taking a tremendous whack. After a vacuum-like sound the can jerked free, banging to the ground. The impact put a foot of space between their faces. The bear panted, and Sue Ann could smell rotten fish. She moved slightly, and the sickles of pain slid from her arm. She sagged, moaning.
The bear let out a low cry.
Gathering her courage, she stilled her moans and met the stare of red-brown grizzly bear eyes.
She was stunned by the will to survive she saw there. An opaque, almost glassy look of surprise did not mask the glare of the wilderness beast. He would kill, and she saw the intent of it in the deadly stare.
In that moment Sue Ann felt an answering upsurge of power, and knew her eyes mirrored the glare of the survivalist. The time between recognition and challenge was nonexistent.
The yearling issued a confused murmur. Then he inched backward, swung down and gamboled into the brush.
Seconds passed. Instinct receded. Sue Ann’s terror began to break up and fade. Still in shock, she looked at her right arm. A tattered sleeve… blood streaming from ugly gouges.
She gasped and began to shake. Cradling her arm, she heaved upright and stumbled toward the car, her mind reeling with disjointed thoughts.
She must never tempt fate. She could die.
She had experienced loneliness so profound it had bent her double sometimes, and death lurked on even the sunniest day in paradise. She must warn Serena. The world was full of dragons.
You Are Reading Mail-Order Mate by Louella Nelson
To order, click one of these links: